‘Forensics’ @ The Wellcome Collection
I’ve yet to see a bad exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, and unlike most other shows in London (we now call them ‘shows’ I think, not temporary exhibitions) it’s free of charge. In this case the curators of ‘Forensics’, Lucy Shanahan and Shamita Sharmacharja, are to be congratulated. The gallery has been divided into a number of separate rooms starting with ‘The Crime Scene’, which features a ‘nutshell’ model, dolls’ houses designed to recreate murder scenes in an early form of virtual reality. You can also see the police camera used at Jack the Ripper’s last crime scene and a tiled floor upon which a murder took place. Numerous documents, video interviews and items of photographic evidence are scattered throughout the rooms.
In ‘The Morgue’ we see the development of the mortuary and the autopsy (‘Autopsy’ from ancient Greek, ‘To see with one’s own eyes’). This has a full-sized ceramic body table, video and audio treats (the sound of a real autopsy is particularly horrible) and rare books. In ‘The Laboratory’ we find everything from poison bottles to fingerprinting methods and DNA tracking. There’s also a disturbing kit that measures facial characteristics, reminiscent of the callipers once used to check people for Jewish descent.
‘The Search’ takes us to cold cases, facial reconstruction, forensic anthropology, the investigation of massacres – and you get to stand inside an ice-cold mortuary, part of an art installation – the Wellcome has excelled in adding such installations to its explorations in science and the human body, always remembering the element of imagination that must accompany the study of scientific reason.
In ‘The Courtroom’ we reach the logical end of the search for truth. There’s a section on Crippen which could have been more detailed, but then it has always been the more bizarre elements of that case which have fascinated writers, and we can read about those elsewhere. The final room places wrongly convicted suspects back at the scenes where they established their alibis, an artistic statement that makes a powerful point, perfectly catching the tenor of the exhibition, which looks beyond mere data to ask; what is evidence, where does proof and culpability lie?
It’s another superb Wellcome show, nicely lit, connected at the centre by a dramatic corridor and accompanied as ever by a bookshop that intelligently tailors its stock to the exhibition so perfectly that I defy any writer with a jingling pocket not to buy a book upon exit. The show will be very popular, especially at the weekends, and as there are two headsets per video clip you may have to queue, but it’s worth it and I’ll certainly go again. Sadly I missed Val McDermid’s talk on forensics, but her non-fiction book on the subject is available in the bookstore.
The Wellcome Collection is at 183 Euston Road, London, and the exhibition is on now.